Strike On Village May Prove Pivotal In S. Afghanistan

U.S. Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Batallion, 3rd Regiment, 2nd MEB, 2nd MEF i i

U.S. Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Batallion, 3rd Regiment, 2nd MEB, 2nd MEF, peer through a hole in a wall on the rooftop of a house in Dahaneh to look for Taliban snipers on a mountainside Wednesday in southern Afghanistan. Julie Jacobson/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Julie Jacobson/AP
U.S. Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Batallion, 3rd Regiment, 2nd MEB, 2nd MEF

U.S. Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Batallion, 3rd Regiment, 2nd MEB, 2nd MEF, peer through a hole in a wall on the rooftop of a house in Dahaneh to look for Taliban snipers on a mountainside Wednesday in southern Afghanistan.

Julie Jacobson/AP

Wednesday's pre-dawn Marine assault on a strategic, Taliban-held town was part of a push to secure a key district in southern Afghanistan ahead of next week's presidential elections.

The village of Dahaneh — a town of about 2,000 people that has seen no government presence in years — is the sole commercial hub in the Nawzad district, according to NPR correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is traveling with Afghan troops that accompanied the Marines.

"The Marines feel that if they can take this town, then perhaps they can flip this district," Nelson tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. "They feel that perhaps by taking this town, people will start moving back in their homes and resisting the Taliban."

The attack on Dahaneh in Helmand province is part of a broader NATO offensive called "Eastern Resolve 2," which is designed to break the months-long stalemate in this southern valley where the Taliban are solidly entrenched. By occupying Dahaneh, the Marines hope to isolate insurgents in wooded areas and mountains, away from civilian centers.

"What they particularly hope to do is clear the area so that Afghan government officials can come in [and] put a polling station here and at another village not too far from here," Nelson says.

A combined force of some 500 U.S. and Afghan troops took part in the attack, which included helicopters, snipers and female Marines brought in to interact with Afghan women during a compound-by-compound search conducted by Afghan forces. The Marines arrived in helicopters under cover of darkness and launched the assault at morning light.

Nelson says the level of resistance they encountered signaled that the operation was "definitely something that the [U.S.] commander felt had been leaked."

Marines and insurgents exchanged heavy fire, including mortars and rockets, in a battle lasting more than eight hours. Fighting diminished after a U.S. airstrike that killed seven to 10 militants, Nelson says, adding that there had been no immediate report of civilian casualties.

"Some of the Marines were privately questioning why it was taking so long to get some [air] support here because they were meeting quite a bit of resistance," she tells Inskeep.

Nelson says before the assault on Dahaneh, she spoke to people in a nearby village about the Aug. 20 presidential elections and that they expressed "a fair amount of interest." But most were more concerned with security and escaping the fighting.

"They definitely have things on their mind other than the election," she says. "But there may actually be a turnout if polling stations are open."

Military and civilian casualties have mounted as U.S. and NATO troops ramp up military operations following President Obama's decision to deploy 21,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year to combat a resurgent Taliban.

U.S. and NATO deaths from roadside and suicide bomb blasts in the country soared sixfold last month compared with the same period in 2008, as militants detonated the highest number of bombs of the eight-year war, according to figures released Tuesday.

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